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Vimalakirti's silence

The inconceivable is most fully elaborated in the famous climactic scene, in which Vimalakirti suggests that the assembled bodhisattvas tell about their own entry into full awareness of the reality of nonduality. Then thirty-one bodhisattvas present a seminar on the multifaceted aspects of nonduality. Such dualities as good and bad, saintly and profane, and birth and death are taken for granted and presumed real in our conventional management of our lives. The nondual awareness is important because our sense of estrangement and suffering arise and our lives become fragmented with these unquestioned habits of dualistic discrimination.

Each bodhisattva gives a brief but penetrating account of some apparent dichotomy or polarity and how they transcended it to enter into nondual awareness. One describes freedom from calculations of happiness and misery. Another describes equanimity about all conceptions of the pure and impure. Another describes distraction and attention as not separate in the mental process. Another declares that self and selflessness have no duality, since there is no fixed self to be made selfless.
Manjushri then congratulates all the bodhisattvas on their fine explanations, but declares that all their statements have been themselves dualistic. Manjushri says that the entrance into nonduality is not to express, proclaim, designate, or say anything.

Manjushri then turns to Vimalakirti and asks him to expound the principle of the entry into nonduality. Vimalakirti remains silent. This is widely referred to as Vimalakirti's thunderous silence. Manjushri applauds the layman, proclaiming that Vimalakirti has indeed demonstrated the entrance into nonduality, beyond all sounds, syllables, and conceptions. All the explanations, including Manjushri's praise of Vimalakirti, are at best dualistic commentaries on the silence provided by Vimalakirti.

Vimalakirti's silence is a prime example of the Zen-like fullness of expression and communication that simultaneously demonstrates the limitations of language. This silence is dynamically expressive and illuminating performance art, not the tepid hesitation of Shariputra's silence when asked by the goddess to speak of liberation.

Both The Blue Cliff Record and Book of Serenity koan collections contain the story of this colloquium on nonduality. The introduction to the case in The Book of Serenity says, "Even if one's eloquence is unhindered, there's a time when one can't open one's mouth." In a poem in his recorded sayings, Tiantong Hongzhi, the verse commentator of The Book of Serenity, says, "The motto for becoming genuine is that nothing is gained by speaking. The goodness of Vimalakirti enters the gate of nonduality."

When we do not even subtly seek gain, either in our speaking or nonspeaking, we can genuinely meet this thunderous silence.